About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What the devil is wrong with NASA?

Now NASA tells us that they have to do an unprecedented space walk to repair damage to the exterior of the Shuttle, trying to avoid a third disaster in the Shuttle program, which would certainly terminate it (it is already dying of lack of commitment from the Bush administration anyhow).

It's reasonable to ask: what is wrong with NASA? Where are the brave and smart people who brought us on the Moon, avoided the Apollo 13 disaster, and landed the Viking probes on Mars? A reasonable answer was actually fictionally forecasted in the 1978 movie "Capricorn One," where NASA was so embattled with fund cuts that it decided that a planned manned mission to Mars was just too dangerous, so they fake it in a TV studio!

In recent years, NASA's most spectacular failures have included the loss of two shuttles, and a botched mission to Mars that missed the red planet altogether, apparently because engineers working on the project didn't think of clearing with each other whether they were using the metric or the "British" system of measurements (why is the US the only industrialized nation still measuring things in inches, anyway?).

The most likely factor accounting for NASA's problems is that several years ago they made the bold move (again to convince Congress to keep supporting them) to re-engineer the space program along the lines of "faster, better, safer." As any optimazation analyst would tell you, pick any two...


  1. Let me begin by saying that I should be watching syndicated reruns of old comedy shows or answering the telephone as I see my ex is calling but instead I am blogging and proud of it. Glad I got that off my chest.

    I was in my early adolescence when the country was sending Alan Shepard off and in my late 20s when "Star Wars" arrived and I never took the slightest interest in either. I have never seen any of the "Star Wars" movies nor any of the "Star Trek" ones. My knowledge of Science Fiction literature is nil. (Does anyone know of a "Hawaii 5-0 convention?)

    Now as I approach dotage, I find myself interested in NASA and the latest flight. Not only do I find awe and mystery as I imagine the flight through the stratosphere I also am concerned that everyone on that mission are wondering if they will survive.

    I go on...but I think that the current administration is distrustful of the space program because it will continue to provide scientific evidence of things I do not understand and that those bits of proof will undermine notions like creationism and that since his constinuency base is made up largely of those folks, what they find cannot be good.

    Those nuns that taught me about run on sentences would hate me for that last one but I have to go see if "Friends" is on TV now.

  2. I think that NASA funding approval difficulty is one in convincing the general public its program benefits. Take for instance the Hubble telescope. This program has given the scientific community great insight on the universe and our solar system. But the general public is either uninterested or has an education level that can not understand its significance, or potential. The public wants a something tangible for its tax dollars. What most don’t understand is that NASA pushes technologies to the limits. This does create some spill over into the economy, but couldn’t these tax funds be spent more efficiently without NASA?

  3. John, yes, tax dollars could be spent more efficiently than investing in NASA, if the only goal where the development of new technologies. But we have other venues for that as well (including funding of other federal agencies, and help to private R&D companies in the form of tax and patent incentives). Part of the point of NASA is to acquire knowledge about the universe, and knowledge -- some of us think -- is worth a little investment for its own sake.

  4. Great blog. At the risk of sounding pedantic, you may want to be aware of some spelling and grammatical pitfalls of common usage:



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